Escape

Getting To Know Design-Forward Philadelphia

From enthralling home-grown artwork on the streets to world-renowned masterpieces in museums, Philadelphia—or ‘Philly’ as it is lovingly known—is a design-forward destination embodying the ethos of art-for-all and all-for-art.

By KUNAL BHATIA AND SHUVAJIT PAYNE

“IT’S MY FAVOURITE PIECE ALONG this stretch,” exclaims our guide Richard DiLullo, as the lush swathes of colour and masterful strokes on the wall draw our eyes. We’re on a walking tour in downtown Philadelphia, a city that’s nearly 350 years old and considered to be the cradle of several ‘firsts’—the nation’s first bank, first hospital, first library, and was even the first capital of the USA. To us, however, the city’s name conjures images of the Constitution of the United States, Liberty Bell, and scrumptious Philadelphia cheese steak (as well as cheesecake!). And as cinephiles, we simply can’t forget Sylvester Stallone’s legendary run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the 1976 blockbuster Rocky. While familiar in so many different contexts, the city’s artistic side was still unknown to us design-loving folk. So, you can imagine just how excited we were to explore its vibrant districts and discover exactly why it’s known as the ‘Mural Capital of the World!’

The colourful Garden of Delight evokes joy and community spirit.

A Community Spirit
DiLullo’s animated storytelling meticulously uncorks a multitude of fascinating spots in Philadelphia’s bustling heart, the Center City, broadly along the trail called ‘Mural Mile South’. Take the Garden of Delight artwork that we are standing beneath and which DiLullo initially claims to be his favourite. This cheerfully vibrant mural is just one of over 4,000 that dot the metropolis’ neighbourhoods. It depicts two trees in an embrace, with a blooming garden spilling out from between them, seamlessly connecting with the real-life community garden in which the work stands. DiLullo shares that the city’s tryst with this art form began 40 years ago, in a creative attempt to control graffiti. Artist Jane Golden was enlisted by the mayor to channel the energies and talents of street artists from what was considered defacement of public property to the production of public art. In 1984, this initiative took the form of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the very institution that has designed the walk we are on today. It has since worked tirelessly to adorn the city with thousands of murals, each varying in size, style, and theme. Every year, dozens more are added, transforming Philly into an ever-changing open-air gallery.

Powerful imagery of the Women of Progress mural.

Today, these murals celebrate science, industry, and the arts; offer tributes to athletes and sports teams; are lively homages to the LGBTQ community; and present portraits of prominent Philly citizens. Notably, there’s even a series of 50 rooftop murals titled A Love Letter For You that are best viewed from the city’s elevated L-train line. These colossal creations are a feast for the eyes, freely available for all to admire and most often found on building walls and in parking lots.

A sweet mural from the A Love Letter For You series.

Since we were curious about how a mural comes to life, we bombarded DiLullo with questions galore! The process is collaborative at its very core. Once a site is identified and funding secured, residents of the neighbourhood gather to brainstorm their mural’s theme. Artists who specialise in the chosen subject then submit design drafts for the community to vote on. The shortlisted design is then further fine-tuned and tailored to the locals’ preferences, making it a participatory process, from the ground up. In fact, locals often roll up their sleeves and join in for the painting, too. How much fun is that! Nowadays, mural designs are created on panels of parachute cloth, with sections simplified, numbered, and colour-coded. These are distributed in community painting workshops held in schools, churches, gyms, and even prisons. It’s a marvellous process, where brushstrokes from all walks of life converge to create a mural!

Boundless Expressions
But Philadelphia’s artistic flair certainly doesn’t stop there. In addition to the murals, we stumbled upon numerous statues and sculptures, memorials and fountains, and several pieces of installation art throughout the city. Some, like Robert Indiana’s painted metal LOVE sculpture, occupy centre stage in parks and don’t only serve as photo-stops but are also iconic symbols of the city itself. According to us, it’s quite fitting for Philadelphia, a city whose name blends the Greek words for love (phileo) and brother (adelphos)!

Visitors taking pictures of the famous LOVE sculpture.

Throughout our stay in the sprawling megalopolis, we were surprised and delighted by artworks at almost every turn—nestled in the foyer of towering skyscrapers, embellishing the entryways of libraries, decorating the façades of shopping plazas, or even tucked away in alleys. We kept our eyes wide open, never knowing what we might spot or where it might appear!

We also discovered that, as with the murals, the abundance of these urban art pieces is not a mere happenstance either. Since as far back as 1872, the non-profit organisation, Association for Public Art, has been diligently working to weave art into the fabric of Philadelphia’s urban spaces. Intrigued, we opted for their self-guided audio tour, unearthing the stories behind the city’s most popular creations located between Center City and Fairmount Park, a massive green expanse with millions of trees.

On the walk, we learnt about the impressive ‘Percent for Art’ model that Philadelphia adopted in 1952. Under this policy, large-scale development projects, whether they are private or city-funded, need to allocate at least one percent of their project costs to create original site-specific public artworks. A rather visionary initiative, it has resulted in over 650 free art pieces being dedicated to the city!

Miguel Horn’s ContraFuerte artwork on Cuthbert Street is an awe-inspiring sight.

If we had to pick a favourite from these, it would have to be artist Miguel Horn’s ContraFuerte installation of eight bodies holding up a bridge on Cuthbert Street. Symbolising human struggle and perseverance, this sculpture is made of layered aluminium plates and its setting in a back street makes this unusual work even more startling! While marvelling at it, a chance encounter with an enthusiastic resident tipped us off about a hidden gem that design lovers like us simply couldn’t afford to miss. “It’s sheer enchantment,” he insisted, compelling us to find our way there the next day itself. And boy, were we glad we did!

A mesmerising pathway at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (on South Street) is the whimsical fantasy world of mosaic maestro Isaiah Zagar, where the kinetic dynamism of installation art fuses with the free-spirited nature of street art in a dazzling display. From 1991, Zagar began mosaicking on an empty lot in his neighbourhood, using mirrors, tiles, discarded odds and ends, machine parts, and even children’s toys. Fourteen years of tireless creativity later, his magnum opus sprawled across half a city block! And in true Philly spirit, when this label-defying wonder faced the threat of demolition, the local community rallied behind the artist, raising funds to purchase the very land it stood upon. While marvelling at its open galleries, winding pathways, and cosy nooks, we were reminded of Nek Chand’s equally fabulous Rock Garden in Chandigarh. Turns out that the two artists had indeed crossed paths, visiting and admiring each other’s creations. Zagar has even embedded Nek Chand’s name within a sculptural panel in his creation!

Medieval cloister at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Indian exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art Beyond Boundaries
There’s no way we could consider leaving without visiting the city’s world-class museums. Beginning with the 148-year-old Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we explored 2,000 years of humanity, from the
ancient world to modern times, and entire floors of Asian, European, and American art. The exhibits featuring authentic architectural ensembles captivated us endlessly, including a gorgeous 13th-century stone cloister from the south of France, a Japanese ceremonial tea house complete with tatami mats and shoji screens, and even a palatial reception hall straight out of 17th-century Beijing. Interestingly, there were plenty of Indian connections to discover too: from stone sculptures and metal idols, to painted miniatures and pichwai paintings, and most intriguingly, a 16th-century temple mandapam from Madurai boasting 58 exuberantly carved stone pillars. Absolutely incredible, to say the least!

Elegant interiors of SkyHigh restaurant.

For our final soirée in the city, we reserved a table at Michelin-starred Chef Jean-Georges’ JG SkyHigh. A contemporary representative of Philly’s ever-evolving design scene, this chic glass-and-mirror covered
restaurant is designed by ‘starchitect’ Norman Foster. Perched on the 60th floor of the Comcast Technology Center, Philadelphia’s tallest tower, this culinary gem offers delightful cocktails, and hearty bites, with unparalleled views of the city. Sitting at our table, we couldn’t help but reflect—both literally and metaphorically—upon the many adorably artful aspects of the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ spread out in front of us. And as the setting sun cast its golden hues over the streets we had wandered through, and twinkling lights illuminated the skyline, we knew we were not done yet and had to return to good ol’ Philly
for more.

 

Related: Here’s How Street Art Is Changing The Face Of Indian Cities